Sally Eilers in Bad Girl, Frank Borzage, 1930, from the "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" box set
Fox's staggering John Ford box last year was a euphoric shock for cinephiles who were used to the major studios treating the canon with, at best, disinterest, and at worst, contempt. Lovingly and intelligently assembled, and featuring a staggeringly wide array of films, it's an inexhaustible fount. The subsequent announcement of a similarly conceived box set showcasing the Fox work of the great German director F.W. Murnau and his American-born Fox colleague Frank Borzage set quite a few of us on our ears. Ford is one thing—a director known by a large group of self-styled movie-buffs, a figure who is, for better or worse, something of an icon of Americana. Murnau and Borzage are a whole other proposition—artists who worked in modes that seem increasingly foreign to a lot of contemporary viewers, for one thing. "Frank Borzage was that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist," raved Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema. Does the phrase "uncompromising romanticist" apply in any way to to any aspect of the current cinema?
The upcoming set, to be released on December 9, is of a somewhat smaller scale than the Ford box, but it's still a treasure chest. On the Murnau end, it features two versions of the immortal Sunrise (in two different aspect ratios—take that, Universal), the too-little seen City Girl, kind of a companion piece to Sunrise (see below), and substantial supplements on the tragically lost 4 Devils. The Borzage stuff ranges from 1925 to 1932 and features, among many others, three films that, along with Sunrise, consolidated Janet Gaynor's stardom: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Lucky Star. There's also, among others, the above-pictured 1931 Bad Girl, with Sally Eilers in the title role. In this adaptation of a Vina Delmar novel, she's not actually bad—she merely gets knocked up. Quite a bit less elaborate than the above-cited Borzage films, it's nonetheless a frank and moving character study set in an world of near-poverty and deferred dreams. And it also features a really sweet montage of Coney Island's Luna Park back in the day:
The nice folks at Fox were kind enough to send me a sampling of the material in the box, and it's already blissed me out. I'll be writing about it more, at length, both here and at The Auteurs'. In the meantime, here are some rapture-inducing images from Murnau's City Girl:
Kate (Mary Duncan) is a tough Chicago waitress dreaming of a more bucolic life; Lem (Charles Farrell) a naive son of a wheat farmer come to the big city to make a sale. They start falling for each other, but Kate's not prepared for him to make any kind of romantic proposal. The shot of her dropping an ice cube back into the serving bowl when he does is a lovely bit of characterization.
Honeymoon in wheat. Lem and Kate arrive at the family farm. Murnau is often cited for his groundbreaking views of teeming metropolises; the imagery he gleans from this starker setting is equally memorable.
The honeymoon over, the marriage at a crossroads. As with Sunrise, in this film Murnau limns the delicacy of human relationships, shows how they can be damaged and sundered by thoughtless words and deeds.